Today, I went to my first Torah Study as a Jew. And I want to talk about what I learned there. This is a modified version of a post that I put up on my converts community message board. You can call this entry “Learning how to write a d’var Torah.”
The Torah parshah for this past week was Ki Teitzei (כי תצא), which is Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19. Like most of Deuteronomy, this is a list of many, many rules. Some of these rules are worrisome – for example, in chapter 22, we get this little gem, about a man who falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin:
18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.
Sounds like rather rough times for her, right? But when we look at this another way, we can see that this is actually giving the woman protection in a patriarchal society, where women who were separated from their fathers’ homes and were not married rarely had protection from anyone, of any kind. This seems to be saying “he will provide for her all of his days; he may not put her aside and stop paying alimony.”
Much of this parshah is like that. On the surface, it seems rather harsh. When you dig down, you find that most often, the laws in this parshah are about protecting those who are most vulnerable; who cannot protect themselves.
The final verses of Ki Teitzei are about Amalek, who attacked the Israelites when they were escaping Egypt:
17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.
This is not the only time Amalek is mentioned in the Torah, but let’s just look at this time. We’re supposed to blot out his memory but not forget him at the same time. This seems contradictory.
However, when we take these final verses in the context of the entire parshah – about protecting the vulnerable – it becomes clear that Amalek stands as a representative of the yetzer ha-ra, or the evil inclination, that we all carry within us. Why is he a representative of yetzer ha-ra? Because he epitomizes the thing that this entire parshah is saying “don’t do” – he attacked the vulnerable in the group of Israelites, the women and children and ill and elderly who were in the rear of the train. Historically, it was considered extremely unethical to do that – you were expected to attack the warriors at the front of the train, not the vulnerable non-fighters at the back of the train.
So perhaps the final exhortation to blot out the memory of Amalek is to blot out the yetzer ha-ra that leads us to attack the vulnerable in too many ways: blog post comments, snide words, gossip, taking advantage of people simply because we can.
This is the lesson I’m taking forward into my week: be kind to those who are unable to defend themselves, regardless of the reason, and take no unfair advantage of them even if opportunity should present itself.